Now that we have learned from my previous blogpost how to read the notes and where to place them in terms of right hand and left hand, there are a few additional signs we must learn that correspond to the pitches of the notes themselves. These include sharps, flats and naturals. A sharp raises a note by one half step. A flat, on the other hand, lowers the note by the same.
In braille, the sharp sign is formed by dots 1-4-6; the same as the sign for the letters sh in grade two literary braille. This makes it easy to remember the dot formation since the letters sh are the first two in the word “sharp.”
The flat sign is composed of dots 1-2-6; the same as the sign for the letters gh in grade two literary braille. One way to remember this sign is to think of words like “laugh,” “tough,” “cough,” etc. as they all have an f sound at the end formed by the letters gh, which is the same as the sound of the f in the word flat.
The natural sign is composed of dots 1-6. There is an easy way to remember this sign. It contains the dot 1 and dot 6 that the sharp and flat sign have, but unlike those two signs, it only has two dots. A natural is a note that is played according to its designated pitch. For example, a natural sign in front of a B means it is a plain old B with no pitch modifications.
Some may wonder why it is necessary to have a natural sign. This question can be answered by studying the concept of key signatures. A key signature tells the musician what key the piece of music is in. This concept is not just for braille music readers, but for all musicians of any discipline including pitched percussion.
In a key signature, there is a listed number of sharps or flats that are understood to apply throughout the piece. A bit of musical theory is necessary to understand how key signatures function. We will begin with a concept known as the circle of fifths. In the circle of fifths, we add a sharp each time we move to the key a fifth above. For example, in the key of C, there are no sharps or flats (no black notes are used). Move five scale steps up from C and you land on G. If we were to play the G scale using the same notes as C, it wouldn’t sound right. This is because we have to raise the pitch of the seventh scale degree (also called the leading tone) up one half step to F-sharp (one black note to the right in this case). Go up a fifth from G and you land on D, which has two sharps. A: three, E: four, B: five, F-sharp: six, C-sharp: seven.
For flat key signatures, we use a similar concept known as the circle of fourths. If we start at C again, four steps above C is F (one flat). B-flat: two, E-flat, three, etc., all the way to C-flat, which has seven. Going up a fourth from C takes you to the same note on a higher octave as going down a fifth from C, meaning: If on a keyboard, a fourth above C is the note F. If you are on C and go down a fifth, you also land on F, if you go down another fifth, you land on B-flat, and so on. A good way to put these two “circles” of fifths together is to think of a clock face where twelve o’clock is the origin or zero. The sharps move in a clockwise direction, while the flats go counterclockwise.
Question: What note is C-flat? Answer: The same as B. Why must we write it this way? Answer: Because a piece of music should not have two notes in a row with the same letter name. This is where the principal of the natural sign comes in. If we are in a key that has at least one sharp or flat, and the unaltered state of this note is desired, the note must have a natural sign next to it to indicate its “natural” pitch. The key of G, for example, has all F’s played as F-sharps per its key signature. If the music calls for an F-natural, the natural sign must precede the note. Otherwise, it will be interpreted as an F-sharp.
Though we have already learned the different dot formations to make each type of music note, there is still the concept of time signatures to cover. A time signature tells the musician how many beats are in a measure. A measure is simply a group of notes that are arranged to fit in the allotted time indicated by the time signature. In braille, measures are designated by placing spaces between them; similar to words in a sentence. Measures form larger groups of music called phrases, which we will discuss in a future lesson.
The time signature is written with two numbers. The first is in the upper part of the braille cell, and the second is in the lower part of the cell. The upper cell number indicates the number of beats per measure, while the lower indicates the type of note getting the beat. In four-four time for example, each measure gets four beats, and the quarter note counts for one beat. In three-eight time, we have three beats per measure and the eighth note gets the beat.
To write a key signature, we indicate the number of sharps or flats by writing that number of sharp or flat signs. In order to save paper space in braille, no sign in braille music is ever written more than three times in succession. So, if the key signature has more than three sharps or flats, we write a number to designate the amount of sharps or flats and follow it by the appropriate sign. The time and key signatures at the beginning of the piece are joined together with no spaces between them and centered. The music follows on the next line in cell three from the left. At the end of the piece is a sign called the double bar. It is the final sign to indicate the closing of the piece. It is a two-cell sign formed by dots 1-2-6, 1-3. It must be shown at the end of all lines of the parallel following the final measure.
For more in depth studies on reading braille music, please enjoy these resources from the NLS Collection that relate to this post. You can access many of our materials any time using Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access. To borrow music-related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact the Music Section
Krolick, Bettye. How to Read Braille Music (BRM29811): Section 5 (page 29).
Rozen, Ruth. Braille music reading: keyboard music [music(braille)] / Prepared by the Staff and Faculty of the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “A continuation to the course “Braille Music Reading” (BRM37002), this course enables students to read keyboard music in braille. For those who play piano or another keyboard instrument, reading braille keyboard music will expand their musical experiences. The ability to read braille music allows players to study and practice independently. The course provides abundant exercises excerpted and transcribed from print piano and organ music, which allow students to practice their skills. Answer key for exercises is in volume 4. A print companion edition of the course book and music is available for sighted teachers and assistants (LPM00902). Volume 3 includes a supplementary discussion for readers of braille keyboard music by Karen Gearreald, designed for current encouragement and future reference.” (BRM37003)
Taesch, Richard. Introduction to Music for the Blind Student Part I, Course and Workbook. “This course is not necessarily intended as a self-guided study of braille music reading basics. It can, however, be adapted to situations where a teacher may not be available. The gradual presentation of music rudiments has been prepared as the groundwork for braille music notation itself.”–Introduction. (BRM34079)
Taesch, Richard McCann, William. Who’s Afraid of Braille Music. (BRM32949)